[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]

From Some Lies and Errors of History by the Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D.; Notre Dame, Indiana: The Ave Maria; 7th edition; 1893; pp. 143-187.


SINCE the Church is the sole depository and interpreter of revealed divine truth on earth, ought she not use every legitimate means to prevent the propagation of error? This is the most available argument wherewith to defend the Inquisition; and its force can be diminished only by insisting on the illegitimacy of the tribunal, and of its methods, as means to preserve the integrity of the Christian body. In the Middle Age every person who impeded the progress of religion, or who placed an obstacle in his neighbor’s path to heaven, was regarded as an enemy to society. The civil law was supposed to protect the faith as much as, if not more than, life or property. The use of force to prevent a heretic from sowing the seeds of religious dissension in a united community, seemed to be no less legitimate than resistance to a foreign invader or a domestic highwayman. Nor did this idea first manifest itself in the so-called Dark Ages; from the day when Constantine gave liberty to the Church, we hear the Fathers insisting that repression 144 of error is a proper defence against persecution and seduction. This repression was not always exercised in the manner; it varied according to the exigencies of the public weal. We find instances of “contentious” and coercive jurisdiction enforced by the ecclesiastical authorities in the very first days of Christianity. The lying Ananias and Saphira fell dead at the imperious voice of St. Peter; an incestuous man is consigned to the vexations of the demon; St. Polycarp styles Marcion, who seeks his friendship, the first-born of Satan;1 and St. Ignatius commends the zeal of those Corinthians who so detested heresy that they would not allow its professors to pass through their territories.2 In the Code of Justinian we read many decrees of the early Christian emperors in defence of the integrity of the faith; Constantine issued two, Valentinian I., one; Gratian, two; Theodosius I., fifteen; Valentinian II., three. Constantine pursued the Donatists with fines and confiscations,3 and burned the books of the Arians. Theodosius banished heretics,4 and Honorius ordered the scouring and imprisonment of Jovinian and his followers, after their condemnation by Pope Siricius.5 145 St. Augustine speaks of having received from the deacon Quod Vult Deus a copy of the proceedings of an inquisition held at Carthage against certain Manicheans;6 and he himself proceeded against the sub-deacon Victorinus, a Manichean, and after a formal trial degraded him and procured his banishment from Hippo.7 St. Epiphanius gives an account of the process instituted by the Patriarch of Alexandria against Arius, which is interesting because of the resemblance of its forms to those used by the modern Inquisition.8 The same Saint tells us that he endeavored to discover Gnostics, and that hence “fifty were exiled, leaving the city free from their thorns.”9 In fact, there occur, during the first centuries of Christianity, so many instances of inquisitorial action against heretics, that the Franciscan De Castro, writing at the time of the Reformation, could well say that the system “was not introduced only three hundred years ago, as Luther asserts: it originated a thousand years ago, and we may infer that it came from apostolic times.”10


The Inquisition never attempted to force a profession of Christianity on infidels or Jews; in order that heresy should be punishable, it was necessary that a sufficiently instructed Christian should persevere in error, and manifest in action his opposition to the authority of the Church. St. Thomas of Aquin, asking whether infidels can be compelled to accept the faith, replies that “they are in no way to be forced to believe, for belief is from the will;”11 and he contends that the worship of heretics is to be tolerated, just as God tolerates certain evils, that man may not lose his liberty. Suarez gives as the common teaching of theologians the doctrine that “infidels who are not apostates ought not to be compelled to embrace the faith, even though they have acquired a sufficient knowledge of it.” The Council of Trent declares that “the Church judges no one who has not entered her fold by Baptism.”12

In the early ages of the Church the penalty of death was seldom inflicted upon heretics. The Emperor Maximus was the first Christian prince to adopt this questionable method of preserving religious unity. In 385 he put to death Priscillian, Bishop of Avila, two priests, 147 two deacons, the poet Latronianus, and Eucrosia, a matron; and it is to be noted that the bishops who took part in this commendation were reproved by their colleagues. Again, when the tribune Marcellinus was about to condemn certain Donatists who had shed Catholic blood, St. Augustine interceded for them; and when Honorius published a bloody law against Donatists and Jews, the same Saint wrote to the proconsul that if any death sentences were executed no ecclesiastic would ever again denounce heretics.13 However, this holy Doctor afterward approved of the imperial rigor,14 and in his “Retractations” he wrote: “I composed two books against the Donatists, in which I said that I did not like to see secular force used to compel schismatics to communion; for I had not yet discovered how impunity adds to the audacity of evil, and how quickness of punishment helps to ameliorate.”15 And elsewhere: “See what they do, and what they suffer. They kill souls, and suffer in their bodies; they produce eternal death, and complain of a temporal one. . . . If thou hast suffered affliction from the Catholic Church, oh, faction of Donatus! thou hast 148 suffered like Hagar from Sarah. Return to thy mistress!”.16

The first modern law decreeing death as penalty for heresy was promulgated by the Emperor Frederick II., who, strange to say, was himself strongly suspected of infidelity, and is lauded by our contemporary liberals as a model for anti-clericals. In 1220, at the time of his coronation, this monarch declared that he “would use the sword received by him from God against the enemies of the faith;” and he ordered that all heretics in Lombardy should be burned, or deprived of their tongues. In 1231, publishing his “Constitutions for the Kingdom of Sicily,” the same Frederick placed heresy “among other public crimes,” and ranked it as more grievous than high-treason.

It has been asserted that Pope Innocent III. founded the Inquisition; that he received the idea from St. Dominic, and that this holy man was the first inquisitor. Innocent III. certainly appointed Rainer and Guy as inquisitors of the faith during the Albigensian troubles; but the Inquisition does not appear as a recognized tribunal before the pontificate of Gregory IX., and in the year 1229. As for St. Dominic, he died in 1221, and the Preaching 149 Friars were not entrusted with the Inquisition until 1233. Again, Theodoric of Apolda tells us that the Saint opposed the Albigensians with “words, example, and miracles;” and, finally, these heretics then needed no Inquisition; they were not occult, but declaimed their errors in public. The origin of the Inquisition is found in the synod held at Toulouse in 1229, under the presidency of the Cardinal Romano di Sant’ Angelo, who had accompanied the reconciled Count Raymond VII. to his restored capital, in order to see that he fulfilled his promises. The Cardinal ordained that the bishops should appoint, in each parish, a priest and two or three laymen of good standing, who would swear to “inquire for” heretics, and to make them known to the magistrates; the harborers of heretics were to be punished, and the houses in which they were voluntarily received were to be destroyed. The institution of this tribunal was certainly an improvement on the previous system; for thenceforth an inquiry was conducted by ecclesiastics, more learned and less harsh than the civil authorities. The inquisitors admonished twice before they proceeded to arrests. Whoever abjured was pardoned; frequently moral punishment only was inflicted, whereas the secular tribunals would inevitably 150 have imposed corporal chastisement. At the instance of St. Raymond of Pennafort, Pope Gregory IX. deprived the bishops of the right of inquisition, and conferred it on the friars, whose power was felt not only by every layman, but by all the clergy. When the inquisitor arrived in a town, he convoked the magistrates and caused them to swear to execute the decrees against heresy; in case of refusal, suspension from office was the lot of the recalcitrant; and if the people interfered, an interdict was launched against the place. The denunciations could not be anonymous, and a period was accorded to the accused within which to present himself at the tribunal if he did not, he was cited. In the preparatory examination, the witnesses were heard before a notary and two ecclesiastics; if the accused appeared guilty, he was arrested, his residence was searched, and his property sequestrated.

In the “Maestruzza” — a summary on the Sacraments and Commandments, written in 1338 for the use of the inquisitors, by the Dominican Bartholomew da San Concordio — we read: “According to the civil law, soothsayers and witches should be burned; but according to the Church, they should be deprived of Communion, if their crime be notorious; if it is secret, 151 they should receive a penance of forty days (c. 42). The inquisitors can not interfere with soothsayers and sorcerers, unless heresy is plainly to be feared. Those who relapse into heresy after having abjured it, should be delivered to the secular power (c. 91).” The crime, therefore, was a civil one. The Church mitigated its punishment; for she absolved the penitent, and even tried to regain the elapsed. The inquisitor had to declare that the accused was really a heretic, and therefore separated from the Church; from that moment he was a criminal before the State; and, as Cantù remarks, the State did not execute the sentences of the Inquisition, but applied the penalties established by the law.

In 1255 Pope Alexander III. established the Inquisition in France, with the consent, or rather at the request, of St. Louis; and the office of grand-inquisitor was conferred on the Dominican provincial and on the guardian of the Franciscans of Paris. According to the Bull of their institution, these inquisitors were independent of the bishops; but so displeasing was the new jurisdiction to both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, that the friars soon found themselves adorned with a useless 152 title.17 In Venice the Inquisition was introduced in 1289; but it should not be confounded with the Venetian Inquisition of State, a purely political institution, founded in 1454. The Inquisition in Venice was, from its very commencement, dependent upon the civil authorities; and in the sixteenth century it was prevented from undertaking any process whatever without the assistance of three senators. In English history this tribunal does not figure, although the English bishops, like all the other ordinaries of Christendom, frequently exercised inquisitorial power. In Germany it never obtained a foothold, and consequently heresy was left to the rigors of the imperial laws in those regions.

The “Supreme Roman Inquisition,” or tribunal of the “Holy Office,” was created on July 21, 1542, by a Bull, “Licet ab initio,” of Pope Paul III., and at the suggestion of Cardinal Caraffa, afterward Pope Paul IV. At 153 Rome it was composed of Dominicans; but in some countries, of Franciscans. Paul IV. decreed that the Inquisition should hereafter depend, not from each bishop, but from this Congregation, which was authorized to judge definitively in all matters of heresy on both sides of the Alps. Sixtus V. reorganized the Holy Office, constituting twelve cardinals as its members, under the presidency of the Pontiff. It received faculties to inquire for heretics, or those suspected of heresy, and their abettors; to prosecute magicians, astrologers, etc.; also to prosecute all abusers of the Sacraments, all writers or possessors of prohibited books, all who abstained from confession or who ate forbidden food, polygamists, and many other offenders. That the methods of the Holy Office were only the customary ones of the time, and by no means secret, is evident from its Code. We have the “Directory for Inquisitors,” by the Dominican Eymeric (Rome, 1587); the “Duty of the Holy Inquisition, and its Mode of Proceeding in Causes of Faith” (Cremona, 1641), by Carena Cesare; and the “Compendium of the Art of Exorcism,” by Mengius. The “Directory” was translated in 1762, by Morellet, with intent to injure the Church; but the celebrated Malesherbes said to him: “You think that you have 154 collected extraordinary facts, unheard of proceedings. Know, then, that this jurisprudence of Eymeric and of the Inquisition is very nearly our own.”18 From these documents we learn that the Holy Office allowed to each of the accused a “procurator,” who had full liberty to communicate with his client, and to conduct his defence; but we must admit that sometimes the inquisitors did “not allow the notaries to give copies of the Acts of the Holy Office, unless to the accused; and then without the names of the witnesses, and without any particulars which might indicate the names of the accused.”19 However, this now reprehensible secrecy was common to all the tribunals of those days; and the Protestant Jeremy Bentham admits that, in many cases, such secrecy may be absolutely necessary to public security.”20 The Inquisition was extended also to the Jews, not to persecute them, but to prevent them from propagating their errors, and from committing the alleged crimes against which the credulous then raged, just as to-day 155 the credulous fume on recalling the “atrocities” of the Holy Office.21

There is a great diversity of opinion, even among Catholic authors, as to the severity or mildness of the Roman Inquisition. Bergier says that “no instance is known of an execution (for heresy) at Rome.” The late Archbishop Spalding, in an admirable refutation of Prescott’s allegations against the Spanish Inquisition, says that “though three hundred years have elapsed since the establishment of this court (the Holy Office), it would be difficult to point to an instance in which it ever pronounced sentence of capital punishment.” De Maistre tells us that “it is impossible to ascertain precisely at what epoch the inquisitorial tribunal first pronounced a capital condemnation. It is fully sufficient for our purpose, however, to be convinced of an incontestable fact: that it never could have acquired this right until it became exclusively a royal or political institution; and that every judgment which affects life in any degree was, is, and must ever be, most conscientiously discountenanced by the Church. . . . The Inquisition never condemns to death.” But Cantù 156 gives many instances of capital punishment awarded by the Roman Inquisition. Tiepolo, Venetian ambassador at Rome, describes an “Act of Faith” (auto da fe, atto di fede) performed in that city on September 27, 1567, when the famous Mgr. Carnesecchi and a friar of Belluno, both having persisted in heresy, were decapitated and their bodies burned. Averardo Serristori, Florentine ambassador, writes that the sentence of Carnesecchi was pronounced by the Cardinals of Trani and of Pisa, Paseco and Gambura.22 Cantù cites another despatch of Tiepolo, describing an Act of May 28, 1569, when, in presence of twenty-two cardinals, four impenitents were given to the flames. In a dispatch of February 24, 1585, the Venetian resident at Rome speaks of a “publication” of seventeen inquisiti by the Holy Office in presence of many cardinals; three of the accused 157 were condemned to the stake. In fine, although many letters of the time narrate alleged atrocities of the Holy Office which are merely founded on the exaggerations of the mob,23 there seems to be no doubt that the Roman tribunal condemned many heretics to death. It is certain, however, that mildness was the general characteristic of the Holy Office. Cousin, in his “Mémoire on Vanini,” shows that the friends of this wretched hypocrite24 tried to have his case transferred to the Roman Inquisition, felling that thus he would escape capital punishment. And history furnishes many instances of criminals feigning guilt of heresy, sorcery, or similar crimes, in order to pass under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition. The case of Campanella la celebrated. His clerical comrades in the Calabrian conspiracy against the Spanish crown escaped death by pleading guilty of heresy, and being therefore confined to the Inquisition; while he himself, after twenty-seven years of confinement, was saved by 158 Pope Urban VIII. having insisted on his trial on the charge of sorcery.25

The word “inquisition,” as met in history has three very different significations. It may mean either a religious, a political, or a mixed tribunal. All bishops, as inquirers into the purity of faith in their respective dioceses, exercise a religious inquisition. The political inquisition can meet with no opposition, unless from those who decry every species of government even such as obtains among savages; for all governments employ some sort of police. But when there is question of the mixed inquisition, such as Rome sanctioned from the beginning of the 13th century, our ears are deafened with clamor. When the Inquisition is condemned by a Catholic, contending that the Gospel of love should have prevented violent proceedings, the idea may not be utterly unreasonable; but we must remember that intolerance seems to be inseparable from profound belief. In the Middle Age faith was the very life of society, the necessary and only 159 tie which constituted it; it is not strange, therefore, that the guardians of society proceeded to the last extremity against the violators of the faith. Such is the explanation which we tender to the Catholic who condemns the Inquisition. But when a Protestant attacks this tribunal, he betrays either ignorance and misplaced complacency in his religious predecessors, or a desire to prescribe one code of morality for his own and another for the Catholic Church. Luther, according to his enthusiastic apologist, Seckendorf, would have imprisoned, banished, and despoiled all the Jews, and would even have deprived them of the Bible. Calvin banished the Carmelite apostate, Bolsec, because this unfortunate proved that the heresiarch’s doctrines made God the author of sin; and it was not Calvin’s fault that the daring man was not capitally punished as a Pelagian. The death of Servetus at the stake; the condemnation of Gentile to death, which he avoided for a time by recantation; the banishment of Ochino; the persecutions of Biandrata; and Calvin’s own book on the errors of Servetus, in which, according to the title-page, “it is taught that heretics are to be coerced by the sword,” — all these facts should cause the Protestant polemic to be less bitter in his diatribes against the 160 Inquisition.26 The “gentle” Melancthon hoped that some brave man would merit glory by assassinating Henry VIII., and he himself approved the execution of Servetus: “The magistracy of the republic of Geneva gave, by putting Servetus out of the way, a pious and memorable example to all posterity.”27 Beza wrote a book in defence of the thesis that liberty of conscience is a doctrine of the devil”; and article 36 of the “Helvetic Confession” reads: “Let the magistrates draw the sword against all blasphemers, and coerce the heretics.”28 But we do not wish, in this 161 matter, to reprove Protestants or to excuse Catholics; we rather say with Cantù: “We seek and explain the truth; and, reflecting that persecution was peculiar to that time, as toleration is said to be peculiar to ours, and that the fury of the persecutors attests their sincerity, we lament the facts, and recur to that principle which is infallible. The Council of Trent speaks not of Inquisition or of stakes, though it pronounces anathema on the unbeliever; but whenever humanity carries out a great design, it becomes prodigal of blood.”


We now approach the subject of the Spanish Inquisition, a tribunal which is often, and wrongly, confounded with the Roman, and about which, reprehensible though it was, there are probably as many popular misconceptions as upon any matter of history. The misstatements of all modern enemies of the Church concerning this tribunal are traceable either to Mme. d’Aunoy’s Hispanophobic book, or to Philip Limborch, or to John Anthony Llorente. The falsehoods of Mme. d’Aunoy and of Limborch were admirably refuted by De Vayrac,”29 and his work is one of the most 162 valuable ever written on the subject. Hefele’s book on “Cardinal Ximenes,” etc., can not be too warmly recommended to the student. Cantù is by no means sparing of the Spanish tribunal; but the thoroughly Catholic tone of his philosophical reflections, and his evident impartiality, render an attentive study of his views on this subject more satisfactory, at least to our mind, than that of any other author.

After 780 years of combat, the Spaniards had saved their Catholicism and nationality — with them the two were thoroughly identified — from the Moors. At first the free exercise of their religion as allowed to the conquered; but after they had repeatedly revolted, and had made many attempts to procure another Mohammedan invasion from Africa, the Spanish sovereigns ordered, in 1501, that all the Moors should leave Castile and Granada, saving those who would embrace Christianity. Most of the Moors received baptism, but many secretly apostatized, while others adulterated their Christian rites with Mohammedan practices. At this time the Spanish government, which for more than a century had resisted the popular demands for the banishment of the Jews, resolved to acquiesce, alleging as a reason a league of all the foes of Christianity 163 against the freedom of Spain. All good Spaniards yearned for a means of cementing the religious and political unity of the nation; and that means seemed to be offered by the Inquisition, which had been introduced into Spain in 1480 in the following manner: The island of Sicily having been added to the Spanish dominions in 1479, the Sicilian inquisitor, De Barbaris, asked Ferdinand and Isabella for a confirmation of the right, granted by Frederick II. to the Inquisition, to appropriate a third of al the property confiscated from heretics. While urging his demand, De Barbaris advised the sovereigns to introduce the Inquisition into Spain, as a measure against the Moorish and Jewish apostates, who, even at this time, long before the decree of banishment, were numerous, and about whom every infamy was narrated. Isabella opposed the project until she was persuaded that it would further the salvation of souls; Ferdinand saw in it a means to replenish his treasury, and immediately consented. When Pope Sixtus IV. heard of Ferdinand’s action, he was so displeased that he placed the Spanish ambassador under arrest; in retaliation, Ferdinand arrested the papal envoy, and recalled all his subjects from the Roman States.


The Pontiff afterward yielded, and allowed the Inquisition to be introduced into Castile and Aragon (1480); later on, however, touched by the complaints that reached him concerning the rigor of the tribunal, he declared that the Bull of institution was surreptitious. He admonished the inquisitors, ordering them to proceed only in accord with the bishops, and not to extend their inquiries into the other provinces; he also instituted a papal judge to hear all appeals from the Spanish tribunal, and he quashed many of its indictments. Ferdinand and Isabella, as well as their successor, Charles V., constantly endeavored to elude these provisions of the Holy See; but even Llorente admits that the papal appellate judges often restored property and civil rights to those whom the Inquisition had condemned; and that they often compelled the inquisitor to absolve the accused privately, in order to save them from legal punishment and public ignominy.

The Dominican friar Thomas de Torquemada,30 of Vallodolid, was chosen to preside over the Supreme or Royal Council of the Inquisition of Castile and Aragon, the members of which had a deliberative voice in all 165 matters of civil law, and a consultative one in affairs of canon law. Seville, Cordova, Jaen, and Toledo had dependent tribunals; and the inquisitors, with two royal assessors, published a code of procedure.31 From this time the cloak of religion covered many acts of tyranny in Spain. The Roman Pontiffs frequently interfered; indeed as far back as the pontificate of Nicholas V. (1447-55) all distinction between new and old Christians had been condemned. Sixtus IV., Innocent VIII., and Leo X. received appeals from the decisions of the inquisitors, and reminded them of the 166 prodigal son. Julius II. and Leo X. dispensed many from the obligation of wearing the sambenito, or penitential sack, which the tribunal imposed on all the reconciled; and these Pontiffs, in several cases, ordered the signs of reprobation to be removed from the tombs of the condemned. Leo X., in spite of Charles V., excommunicated the inquisitor of Toledo in 1519. Paul III. encouraged the Neapolitans to resist Charles V. when he wished to 167 introduce the tribunal among them; and when the learned Vives was condemned as suspected of Lutheranism, the same Pontiff declared him innocent. Mureto, the great Latinist whom the Spanish Inquisition would have sent to the stake, was called to Rome, and made a professor in the University.

Diego Deza, successor to Torquemada, persuaded the Spanish sovereigns to establish the tribunal also in Granada, but Isabella insisted that it should be confined to Cordova; afterward, following the advice of Ximenes, the sovereigns bought and emancipated all Moorish slaves who would become Christians, and thus were obtained fifty thousand “new Christians.” Under Charles V. the Inquisition increased in activity, but under Philip II. it attained its greatest development. When dying, Charles V. had earnestly impressed upon the mind of his heir the necessity of preserving the tribunal; and so well did Philip fulfil his father’s desire that the power of the Inquisition became so great as to overshadow, in some respects, that of Rome. This antagonism is illustrated by the celebrated process of Carranza. Carranza was a Dominican, and had greatly distinguished himself in the Council of Trent. His merit caused him to be promoted to the see of Toledo in 1557; but his 168 genius drew upon him the jealousy of many, and he was accused of heresy. For this reason Charles V. received him rather coldly when he approached the monarch’s death-bed to administer the last Sacraments. The accusers of Carranza insisted that after the death of the Emperor the Archbishop lifted a crucifix and exclaimed: “Behold Him who has saved us all! Everything is forgiven through His merits; there is no longer any sin.” For such expressions, as though he excluded the co-operation of man in the work of justification, he was arrested on August 22, 1559, and confined to the inquisitorial prison of Valladolid. The Holy Office had already placed on the Index his “Comments on the Christian Catechism,” although the book was dedicated to Philip II. and had been approved by a commission of the Council of Trent. Pius IV., rigorous though he was, disapproved of the conduct of the Inquisition, and called the case to Rome. Philip, however, declared that the first prelate of Spain should be tried only in Spain, and the Pontiff compromised by sending a legate and two other judges to conduct the examination. But the inquisitors contrived to prolong the investigation until St. Pius V. ascended the papal throne. This Pontiff repeatedly complained to Philip that 169 he was not kept informed of the progress of the cause; and finally, by threatening the monarch with excommunication, succeeded in having Carranza sent to Rome. This was in May, 1567, after nearly eight years of imprisonment under the Spanish inquisitors.32

Since the work of Llorente is generally adduced as an authority in all matters concerning the Spanish Inquisition, it is well to give some account of this famous writer. Born of a noble family of Aragon in 1756, he entered the priesthood in 1779, became vicar-general of the diocese of Calahorra in 1782, 170 and was appointed secretary-general of the Inquisition at Madrid in 1789. From his early manhood he was a Freemason, and, of course, a “Liberal,” which term was then — as even now it sometimes is — synonymous with anti-Catholic. When Napoleon commenced his experiment of planting his own dynasty on the throne of Spain, Llorente became an enthusiastic Afrancesado, as all patriotic Spaniards styled the adherents of the Josephine administration. It has always been a favorite trick with usurpers to ransack the archives of dispossessed princes, and to publish to the world whatever might turn, or might be twisted, to the discredit of the latter. In accordance with this idea, the intruding Joseph Bonaparte in 1809 commissioned Llorente, the ex-secretary (he had been dismissed for sundry irregularities) to show up the secrets of the Inquisition, that the Spaniards might learn to love the tyranny-crushing rule of a foreigner. When the venal Afrancesado’s work appeared, it was found to be an insult to Rome, to Spain, and to the Spanish Church. Hefele proffers the following judgment on Llorente: “A prominent feature in his writings is their great bitterness toward the Church, and this sentiment impels him to many inexact and even false assertions. The 171 shallowness and inaccuracy of Llorente, as a historian, are no less evident that his hatred of the Church. In his ‘Portraits’ he informs us that Paul of Samosata embraced the heresy of Sabellius: an assertion the absurdity of which brings a smile to the face of the veriest tyro in ecclesiastical history. He also tells us that St. Justin (d. 167) wrote his works before the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107 or 116); that Apollonius of Tyana was a heretic, etc. No less full of errors is his ‘History of the Inquisition.’ However, this work is valuable, inasmuch as it furnishes us with numerous extracts of original documents of the Inquisition; and they enable us to form, concerning the Spanish tribunal, a more exact judgment than one could have formed before Llorente wrote.” The Protestant Ranke says that Llorente “gave us a famous book on this subject; and if I may presume to say anything that contravenes the opinion of such a predecessor, let my excuse be that this well-informed author wrote in the interest of the Afrancesados of the Josephine administration. In that interest . . . he looks on the Inquisition as a usurpation of the spiritual over the secular authority. Nevertheless, if I am not altogether in error, it appears, even from his 172 own facts, that the Inquisition was a royal court of judicature, although armed with ecclesiastical weapons.”

Relying implicitly on the authority of the salaried sycophant of Joseph Bonaparte, many later writers regard the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition as due to the influence of the court of Rome. They assert that the severities of this tribunal were but consequences of Catholic intolerance and of the Roman mania for persecution; they depict the Inquisition in such lurid colors as to lead the reader to believe it the monster, without a rival in cruelty, among all tribunals, ancient or modern, civilized or barbarous, — Christian, Mussulman, or Pagan. Llorente is a great favorite with Prescott; consequently when the latter treats of the Inquisition, many of his facts are miscolored, and not a few perverted. Now, nothing is more certain than that the Spanish tribunal was mainly a political institution. The king appointed the grand-inquisitor; he confirmed the nomination of the assessors, two of whom were always taken from the supreme council of Castile; the tribunal depended from the sovereign, who thus became the master of the lives and property of his subjects;33 the king reserved to himself a share of 173 the funds of the Inquisition, and often the inquisitors had not enough for their expenses. The Protestant Schröck, in his “Universal History,” admits that this tribunal was secular, and wonders that the pontiff allowed it to become such. But let us hear Ranke on this matter: “In the first place, the inquisitors were royal officers. The kings appointed and dismissed them; among the various councils at their court the kings had likewise one of the Inquisition; the courts of the Inquisition, like other magistracies, were subject to royal visitation; the same men who sat in the supreme Court of Castile were often accessories of the Inquisition. To no purpose did Ximenes scruple to admit into the council of the Inquisition a layman nominated by Ferdinand the Catholic. ‘Do you not know,’ 174 said the king, ‘that if the tribunal possesses jurisdiction, it derives from the king?’ . . .. .. In the second place, all the profit of the confiscations by this court accrued to the king. . . . It was even believed and asserted from the beginning that the kings had been moved to establish this tribunal more by a hankering after the wealth it confiscated than by motives of piety. . . . Segni says that the Inquisition was invented to rob the wealthy of their property, and the powerful of their influence.34

As Charles V. knew no other means of bringing certain punishment on the bishops who had taken part in the insurrection of the Communidades,35 he chose to have them judged by the Inquisition. . . . Under Philip it interfered in matters of trade and of the arts, of customs and marine. How much further could it go, when it pronounced it heresy 175 to sell horses or munitions to France? . . . In spirit, and above all in tendency, it was a political institution. The Pope had an interest in thwarting it, and he did so as often as he could.”36

In 1812 the Spanish Cortes, having assembled to arrange a new constitution for the kingdom, appointed a committee to report on the Inquisition. This document shows that its authors were no friends of the tribunal, but it asserts that the Inquisition “was an institution demanded and established by the Spanish monarchs in difficult circumstances;” and that, furthermore, the tribunal “could decree nothing without the consent of the king.” Nay, according to the committee, “the Inquisition is a royal authority, the inquisitor is a royal agent, and all his ordinances are null and void unless they have the royal sanctions. The king’s power suspends and revokes at will every member of the tribunal; and the very moment royal authority would disappear, the tribunal would accompany it.” The Calvinist Limborch, who is, after Llorente, the most bitter of all polemics who have written on the Inquisition, narrates a fact which also proves that the Spanish tribunal was a local political institution. When Philip 176 II. sought to establish it in Milan, the people revolted, declaring that “in a Christian city it would be tyranny to establish a form of Inquisition designed for Moors and Jews.” The conduct of the Neapolitans, ever averse to the introduction of the Spanish Inquisition, though they willingly received the Roman, as well as the ordinary Inquisition of their own bishops, also proves that the Spanish tribunal was a royal one. Many attempts, met by insurrection and bloodshed, had been made by the viceroys of Charles V. and Philip II. to introduce it; and in 1564, when several of the friends of Victoria Colonna and Julia Gonzaga37 had been cited by the archiepiscopal vicar, and when two others had been beheaded, the citizens demanded of the viceroy, the Duke of Alcala, whether he intended to force the obnoxious tribunal upon 177 them. A negative answer reassured them; and a few years afterward the citizens sent deputies, “with orders to thank the illustrious Archbishop for his many demonstrations against heretics and Jews, and to request him to inform his Holiness that the entire city is well pleased with the chastisement and extirpation of such persons by the hand of our own ordinary, as is quite proper; this we have always prayed for: that the canons should be observed, and that there should be no interference of a secular court.”


We must now say a few words in conclusion upon the severity of the Spanish Inquisition. Many of the apologists of this tribunal point to the words “Mercy and Justice” emblazoned on its banner, and insist on the fact that the consignment of a culprit to the secular arm was always accompanied by a strong recommendation to mercy. There is no doubt that mercy was generally shown to the repentant, and that in their case the auto da fé consisted in the burning of the candles which they held in their hands. But we lay no stress on the recommendation to mercy; we agree with those who regard this phrase as a mere form. The inquisitors well knew that their 178 condemnation and their abandonment of the accused to the civil power was equivalent to a sentence of death; that all hope of mercy rested with themselves alone. We prefer to confine ourselves to an inquiry into the truth of the popular estimate of the cruelties of the tribunal.

The reader may rest assured that in this exhibition, with which popular prejudice has long been regaled, there is nothing behind the curtain that might further satisfy the morbid; everything that could contribute to render the scene more impressive has been artistically presented. Outside of Spain, few authors, Catholic or Protestant, have attempted to explain, still fewer to defend, the Spanish Inquisition. In France, for a long time after the days of Philip II., it was the fashion to ridicule everything pertaining to Spain. In England, commercial rivalry and religious rancor, aided by a consciousness of England’s own superior cruelty in religious persecution, caused those writers on whom moderns have relied for information to misrepresent everything emanating from his Catholic Majesty. In Germany, until very recent times, the calumnies of the first “reformers” had so firm a hold on the popular and even on the cultivated mind, that no horror narrated of a 179 Catholic people or of a Catholic ruler appeared incredible. But even Voltaire, of course an implacable foe of the Inquisition, admits that “without doubt this justly detested tribunal has been charged with horrible excesses that it did not always commit; it is foolish to clamor against the Inquisition because of doubtful facts, and still more foolish to search for lies with which to render it hateful.”38 And hearken to the opinion of Bourgoing, Minister of the first French Republic to Spain, and, from the very nature of his associations, an opponent of the Inquisition: “I publicly avow, in order to pay homage to truth, that the Inquisition might be cited, in our days, as a model of equity.”39 Even Limborch admits that during a very long period only fifteen men and four women were executed, and most of these for treason, witchcraft, sacrilege, or other crimes different from heresy.40 Llorente cites an auto da fé of 1486 at Toledo, when seven hundred and fifty were condemned, but not one to capital punishment; another of nine hundred, also without a death; another where three thousand three hundred were condemned, but only twenty-seven suffered death. 180 And we must remember that, besides heresy, the Inquisition had jurisdiction over sins against nature, solicitation in tribunale, blasphemy, robbery of churches, and even over the furnishing of contraband goods to the enemy.

Let us examine the mode of procedure adopted and constantly followed by the Spanish Inquisition. According to Simancas,41 one of the first lawyers of the sixteenth century, no one was arrested until accused by three different witnesses, each of whom swore that he was not acting in collusion with any other, and that he was not actuated by malice.42 So careful was the tribunal to exclude malice, that both witnesses and inquisitors were subject to excommunication if they yielded to it. When the accused appeared, if he could disprove the charges, he was released; if he could not disprove them, but avowed his repentance, he was, even then, released. Even if he relapsed, and being again committed, repented, he was again released.43 Only on the third conviction, and by three different sets of witnesses, each generally consisting of three (sometimes only two were 181 required), the accused was finally consigned to the civil court for judgment. Much fault has been found with the Inquisition for sometimes admitting the evidence of disreputable persons, such as courtesans, etc.; but all tribunals do so to this day; and Simancas says that such testimony was received only “for what it was worth,” and that, to condemn the accused, evidence “clearer than light” was required.44

So far, we think, the reader will find no fault with the proceedings of the Inquisition, unless he is violently affected by the fact of the crime being a religious one, and therefore — as he may have been accustomed to think — one beyond the cognizance of a human tribunal. Let him remember, however, that positive law is conventional; that “to-day different crimes are punished, but this proves only that social interests are not always the same; those of to-day have the advantage of being actual, while those of the olden time have the disadvantage of having passed away.”45 But the reader will probably condemn the practice of torturing the convicted who would not confess their guilt. The more enlightened jurisprudence of our day recognizes the 182 foolishness, as well as the cruelty, of such practice; but at the time of the Inquisition the custom of applying the “question”46 at the trial of imputed criminals was universal, and had been recognized from the days of Justinian. Men seem not to have perceived its absurdity and inhumanity until a very modern period; most of the European States continued its use until the end of the last century. But there are two points concerning the use of torture by the Spanish Inquisition which are too frequently ignored. Torture was applied by the civil, not by the ecclesiastical court; and if, as we learn from Art. 18 of the code established by Torquemada, one or two ecclesiastics were always present at the question, they were there merely to witness the avowals, and not — as popular fancy has pictured them — to gloat over the agonies of their victims. Again, a confession extorted by torture was of no avail to the prosecution, unless it was voluntarily confirmed three days afterward.

Concerning the number of the victims, 183 whether by death or by exile, of the Spanish Inquisition, Balmes says that he defies England or France — the two nations who now claim to at the head of civilization — to show, and to compare with the Spanish, their statistics on the subject of religious persecution: “We do not fear the parallel.” The Continuator of Fleury gives us a discourse of the celebrated Chancellor de l’Hopital who was strongly suspected of Calvinism, which indicates that in the sixteenth century the dreaded tribunal was not painted in colors so sombre as it wears at present. At the Colloquy of Poissy there was a debate on the propriety of establishing the Inquisition in France; and the Chancellor allowed that he should vote for it, “had not the evil of religious dissension already taken so deep a root in his country, and were it likely that France would secure that benefit of unity of faith which Philip had secured for Spain at the cost (during his reign) of forty-eight capital executions.” Llorente contends that, during its career of three hundred and thirty years, the Spanish tribunal put more than thirty thousand persons to death; but when we analyze his details, we find that his figures are not to be trusted. Take for instance the assertion that during the first year of its existence 184 (1481) the sole tribunal of Seville burned two thousand, all of whom, he says, belonged to the diocese of Seville and Cadiz. In support of this charge he cites Mariana; but a consultation of that historian will reveal that the number of two thousand includes all persons executed under Torquemada, and throughout his entire jurisdiction — that is, in the whole of Castile and Leon during his fifteen years of inquisitorship. After narrating how Torquemada founded inquisitorial tribunals in Castile, Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia, Pulgar, a contemporary historian, justifies the remarks of Mariana: “These tribunals summoned all heretics to present themselves; and fifteen thousand having obeyed, they were reconciled to the Church by penance. As for those who waited for prosecution, the convicted were consigned to the secular authority, and about two thousand of them were burned at different times in various districts.”

Llorente himself shows, in another passage, that his figures concerning the victims of the year 1418 are falsified; for there he states that in that very year the new tribunal executed two hundred and ninety-eight persons. He perceived the contradiction, and tried to escape by remarking that seventeen hundred 185 and two other victims belonged to other places than Seville — “to the surrounding districts and the diocese of Cadiz.” But the forgetful historian had already told us, and rightly, that before 1483 there was but one inquisitorial tribunal in all Andalusia, and that it was at Seville, whither the accused were sent from all parts. So much for Llorente’s statistics of the first year of the Spanish Inquisition, and nearly all his other calculations are made with similar disregard for truth. Listen to the following argument: “When the number of tribunals was increased from three to eleven, the number of executions must have increased in the same proportion”; and then he builds up figures. Must we suppose that eleven tribunals necessarily have eleven times the number of capital sentences hitherto pronounced by one?

Again, the bad faith of Llorente is plain when he says that his thirty thousand victims were all heretics, — ‘unfortunates, who had committed, perhaps, no other crime than that of better interpreting the Bible, and of having faith more enlightened than that of their judges.” According to his own admissions, the Spanish tribunal took cognizance of many crimes besides heresy: of sins against nature; of ecclesiastical and monastic immoralities; of 186 blasphemy, usury, and sacrilegious theft; of all crimes connected with the employees or affairs of the tribunal; of traffic in contraband of war; and of every kind of sorcery and superstition — which last crimes, thanks to the Moors and Jews, caused more trouble in Spain than all the others produced. Finally, Hefele shows that at Nordlingen — a Protestant town of Germany, having then a population of six thousand — the Protestant authorities burned in four years (1590-94) thirty-five sorcerers. Applying these proportions to Spain, where sorcery was then at least as prevalent, thee should have been, in four years, fifty thousand sorcerers executed in that country; that is, twenty thousand more than Llorente assigns as victims of every kind to the Spanish Inquisition during its career of three hundred and thirty years. Let the reader reflect as to the probable proportion of heretics in Llorente’s thirty thousand victims.47


1  Irenæus, b. iii, c. 3.

2  Epist. to Ephes.

3   Optatus of Milevi, b. iii.

4  Baronio, y. 383, no. 34.

5  Idem, y. 390, no. 47.

6  “Heresies,” to Quod Vult Deus, c. 46.

7  Epist. 236 alias 74.

8  Heresies,” 69.

9  Ibi., 26, no. 17.

10  “Just Punishment of Heretics,” Paris, 1565.

11  Summa Theol., p. 10, art. 8.

12  Sess. 4, c. 2.

13  Epist. 100.

14  Epist. 93.

15  B. ii, c. 5.

16  Tract on John, no. 15.

17  Bergier, art. “Inquisition.” — Bergier complacently congratulates his countrymen upon their freedom from the obnoxious tribunal, but he omits to state that the civil authorities of France furnished the world with spectacular “acts of faith” in quite modern times. Thus, on Feb. 17, 1525, in the Place Maubert at Paris, the licentiate, Master William Joubert, after having made a public recantation in the Church of St. Genevieve, was given to the flames because of his former Lutheranism. Vanini suffered at Toulouse on February 19, 1618.

18  Morellet says, in his “Memoirs,” vol. i, p. 59: “I was confounded at this assertion, but afterward I found that he was right.”

19  “Short Account of the Manner of Prosecuting the Causes of the Holy Office, by the Rev. Vicars of the Holy Inquisition of Modena,” cited by Cantù, in his “Heretics of Italy,” disc. 32, note 63.

20  “Works,” vol. ii, p. 191; and passim.

21  The good Sadoleto, called the Italian Fénelon, in a letter to Cardinal Farnese, laments that the Jews were treated too kindly at Rome, and protected by Paul III.

22  “Embassy of Averardo Serristori, ambassador of Cosimo I. to Charles V. and at the Court of Rome,” — 1537-1568; Florence, 1853 — Carnesecchi had been excommunicated as contumacious by Paul IV.; under Pius IV. he defended himself so well that he was absolved and acknowledged as a good Catholic. But he soon became notorious as a teacher of the Reformed doctrines, and Pius V. obtained his extradition from the Grand-Duke Cosimo I., whose subject he was. His process is very interesting, as furnishing many particulars concerning Cardinal Pole, Victoria Colonna, and others of the same school.

23  De Thou writes that during the reign of Sixtus V. Mureto told him: “Whenever I awake I dread lest I shall hear that such a one is no more.” The assertion is false; for Mureto died in 1585, shortly after the election of Sixtus V. and De Thou was then residing in France.

24  Leibnitz deemed him insane.

25  The great mathematician was acquitted; he was enrolled in the Papal household, and an annual pension assigned him. But the Spanish residents having mobbed him several times, he repaired to France, where he was received with open arms by Cardinal Richelieu, and made a counsellor of state. He became president of the newly founded Royal Academy of France.

26  The reforming princes of Germany and Sweden were foes to toleration; they had arrogated to themselves all power in religious matters, and would have but one religion in their dominions. Their motto was Ejus religio cujus regio. Calvin, most stubborn of the foes to a separation of Church and state, invoked against dissenters the penalty of death, because, as he asserted, no one can refuse to acknowledge the authority of princes over the Church without injury to the governments established by God. Those Protestants who would claim Savonarola as one of the precursors of the Lutheran revolt should know that the friar was no friend to toleration. Disputing against astrologists, he exclaimed: “Oh, ye foolish and insensate astrologists! the only way to argue with you is the use of fire.” (“Tract against Astrologers,” c. 3.)

27  “On Servetus,” 155. — “Corpus Reform,” viii, 523; ix, 133.

28  At this day, says Cantù, they show at Dresden the axe which the Lutherans used against dissenters, and on it is inscribed: “Beware, Calvinist!”

29  “Present State of Spain,” Amsterdam, 1719.

30  Not to be confounded with his uncle, the great theologian, John, Cardinal Torquemada, who died in 1468.

31  The first three articles treated of the composition of the tribunal in cities; the publication of censures against heretics and apostates, who did not voluntarily denounce themselves; and prescribed a further term of grace by which confiscation might be avoided. IV. Voluntary confessions, made within the term of grace, were to be written in answer to questions of the inquisitors. V. Absolution could not be given in secret, unless the crime was secret. VI. A reconciled person was deprived of every office of honor, and could not use gold, silver, pearls, silk, or fine wool. VII. Pecuniary penances were given to those who voluntarily confessed. VIII. A voluntary penitent, presenting himself after the term of grace, could not be exempted from the confiscation incurred on the day of his apostasy or heresy. IX. Only a light penance was given to voluntary penitents who were not yet 20 years of age. X. The time of a penitent’s first fall was to be particularized, that it might be ascertained what proportion of his goods should be confiscated. XI. If a heretic, confined by the Inquisition, should demand absolution, being touched by sincere repentance, it was to be granted; but his penance should be imprisonment for life. XII. The Inquisitors were allowed to use torture in the case of a reconciled person whose confession they deemed imperfect, and whose penitence they deemed it necessary to stimulate. XIII. Torture was also permitted in the case of one who had boasted of having concealed crimes in his confession. XIV. A convicted person, persisting in a denial of guilt, was to be condemned as impenitent. XV. If a person under torture confessed, and afterward confirmed his avowal, he was to be condemned as one convicted; if he retracted, he was to be again interrogated. XVI. It was prohibited to furnish the accused an entire copy of the testimony against him. XVII. The witnesses were to be questioned by the inquisitors themselves. XVIII. One or two inquisitors were to be present at every examination. XIX. An accused who did not obey a formal citation was to be condemned as a convicted heretic. XX. If his conduct, while living, showed that any person, now dead, was a heretic, he was to be condemned as such; his body, if in consecrated ground, was to be disinterred, and his property confiscated. XXI. The inquisitors were ordered to exercise their powers over the vassals of the lords, and to censure the latter if they resisted. XXII. A portion of all confiscated property was to be given, as alms, to the heirs of the condemned. The remaining six articles regarded the conduct of the inquisitors among themselves and toward their subordinates.

32  Carranza was honorably lodged in Castel San Angelo. Four cardinals, four bishops, and twelve theological doctors were deputed for his trial. The Pope plainly manifested his indignation at the conduct of the Inquisition; he declared that far from prohibiting the “Comments” of the Archbishop, he was much inclined to approve of the work by a motu-proprio. But it appears certain that Carranza had at least rendered himself liable to suspicion. In 1539 he had assisted as “qualificator” of the Inquisition, at a general chapter of the Dominican Order at Rome, and had become very intimate with Flaminius and other suspects, and even with the noted heretic, Carnesecchi. The process at Rome lasted three years: three more were spent in the law’s delays, and only in 1576 was definitive sentence pronounced by Gregory XIII. On his knees before the Pope, Carranza made an abjuration of all his heretical doctrines, and withdrew fourteen “evil-sounding” propositions taken from his writings. He was suspended from episcopal functions, and ordered to reside in a house of his Order at Orvieto for five years, after having visited the seven basilicas of Rome. However, he died a few years afterward, and the Pope gave him a splendid funeral.

33  Anthony Perez, pursued for his life by Philip II., and escaping to France, published some “Relations,” in which he tells how the papal nuncio disapproved of this notion of the royal power, and adds: “While I was at Madrid, a certain party, whom I need not name, preaching before the Catholic King, asserted that ‘kings have absolute power over the persons and goods of their subjects.’ This proposition was condemned by the Inquisition; and the preacher was compelled, in the same place, and with all the juridical formalities, to retract it. He did so in the same pulpit, adding, ‘Kings possess over their subjects only that authority which is accorded them by divine and human law, and not any derived from their own absolute will.’ The delinquent was made to repeat these words by order of Master Fernan del Castillo, consultor of the Holy Office.”

34  Ranke might have stated that the Florentine historian adds: “It was based on the omnipotence of the king, and it worked everything to the profit of the royal power, to the detriment of the spiritual. In its first idea and in its object it is a political institution. It is the interest of the Pope to put obstacles in its way, and he does so whenever he can; but it is the interest of the king to maintain it in continual progress.”

35  Alluding to the struggle of the Communes for their fueros, or privileges, a struggle in which the clergy sided with the people.

36  Loc, cit.

37  The Princess Victoria Colonna, born 1490, at Marino, a fief of her family, was one of the most distinguished women of her day. Loved, after the manner of Petrarch, by Michael Angelo, and intimate with Pole, Morone, Flaminio, and other great spirits of the time, she exercised more influence than any other person of her circle. Her correspondence, redolent of mysticism, is orthodox; but she did not escape the suspicion of heresy. Julia Gonzaga, Countess of Fonda, another famous princess of the day, had to bear the same accusation; but, as Pompeo Litta says (“Celebrated Italian families,” no. 33), this was common to all the learned personages who then contended for a reform of ecclesiastical discipline.

38  In the French “Dictionary of Sciences.”

39  “A Voyage in Spain,” by M. Bourgoing, reviewed in the “Journal of the Empire,” Sept. 17, 1805.

40  Spalding, loc. cit.

41  “Catholic Institutions against Heresy,” 1552.

42  Ibi. tit. xliv.

43  Limborch admits these two consecutive pardons.

44  Loc. cit., tit. li.

45  Cantù “Heretics of Italy,” disc. 5.

46  There were two kinds of “question,” the ordinary and extraordinary; the former being a mild use of the instruments employed “to elicit the truth,” while the latter involved the utmost extreme of torment.

47  Voltaire says of the Spanish Inquisition:

                          “Ce sanglant tribunal,
Ce monument affreux du pouvoir monacal,
Que l’Espagne a reçu
, mais qu’elle-meme abhorre
Qui venge les autels
, mais qui les déshonore;
, tout couvert de sang, de flammes entouré.
Egorge les mortels avec un fer sacré.

And yet, this same Voltaire, becoming, to use the words of M. de Maistre, “A remarkable monument of that good sense which perceives facts and of that passion which is blind to their causes” does not hesitate to admit in his “Essai sur l’Histoire Générale,” vol. iv, ch. 177, that “In Spain, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were none of those bloody revolutions, those conspiracies and cruel visitations which were seen in the other countries of Europe. In fact, were it not for the horrors of the Inquisition, we could not reproach the Spain of that day with anything. That is, observes M. de Maistre, the Sage avows that, were it not for the horrors of the Inquisition, we could not reprove that nation which, only by means of the Inquisition, escaped those horrors which dishonor all the others. At the commencement of the sixteenth century, adds the Catholic publicist, the Spaniards saw the rest of Europe in flames because of the wars of religion. They sustained the Inquisition as a political means to prevent those wars.

[Back] [Blueprint] [Next]

Valid CSS!